Popular Delusions XII: Qi

A popular notion in traditional Asian cultures, as well as the garbled versions of Asian culture imported into the West by the New Age movement, is the idea of qi (or chi), the vital energy that permeates the universe and flows through living things. A wide variety of pseudoscientific beliefs are based on qi, and today’s post will examine some of them, through the lens of an article in a local alternative newspaper I picked up touting qi’s uses in interpersonal relations and healing.

The author, Deborah Davis, starts out by defining her terms:

Qi is the life force energy that animates all living things including humans, plants and animals.

As any skeptic should recognize, this is one of the oldest superstititions known to humanity: vitalism, the belief that there’s something irreducible and magical about life. This belief has persisted for millennia, even as the progressive workings of science reveal more and more about how life works and leave increasingly less room for magic. We’ve studied bacteria, we’ve investigated the cell: at the bottom everything happens through the interplay of genes and chemical reactions. There is no part left over for qi or the soul or vital forces to play.

Next, she describes how to detect qi:

Stand or sit in a relaxed manner and take a few deep belly breaths… Now rub your palms together vigorously until they’re warm. Hold your palms about six inches away from one another. Close your eyes and attune to any sensations between your hands (if you don’t feel anything, bring your hands closer together).

…I usually begin my Qigong classes with this exercise and most people discover a magnetic pulse, as if there’s a pressure between the palms.

What this passage describes is an excellent way of invoking the ideomotor effect, a phenomenon that’s also exploited by pseudosciences such as dowsing and Ouija boards. Simply thinking about moving your hands in one direction creates subconscious muscle movements, which a sensitively balanced instrument such as a dowsing rod can reveal. Without an instrument, this is harder to notice, which is why Davis helpfully advises that the sensation may be almost indiscernible and that you should move your hands around until you feel something.

It’s also noteworthy that what Davis describes is a standard technique used by hypnotists to gauge how suggestible a person is. More suggestible people are more likely to feel an imaginary force pulling their hands together in response to the hypnotist’s prompting, which has interesting implications for people who believe in the power of qi.

Others feel tingling or heat. This is an entertaining exercise to share with your family and everyone will have a different experience, which may vary each time.

What Davis apparently forgets is that one paragraph above, she advised starting by rubbing one’s palms together vigorously, which could produce sensations of heat or tingling for entirely non-supernatural reasons. But more importantly: “everyone will have a different experience, which may vary each time”?

If there is no consistency to the feelings she believes indicate the presence of qi – if everyone may feel something different each time they try it – then how does she know that everyone’s feelings come from the same source? How does she know that all these infinitely variable experiences can all be attributed to one phenomenon which she calls qi? Any valid scientific theory must have a well-defined explanatory scope; a theory that can explain anything explains nothing. By contrast, being compatible with any possible evidence, real or hypothetical, is the mark of a pseudoscience.

Begin by sensing the energy field (Qi) surrounding your being; palpate the space about one to three inches away from your body with your palms. It’s very subtle. Close your eyes to help you focus inward.

The above comments about ideomotor reactions and suggestibility apply here as well. But Davis, without noticing it, has given us a test for whether qi is real. If we can feel others’ qi without knowing whether there’s a person present, then we would have excellent evidence that this is a real phenomenon, even if we haven’t found any other way to measure it.

As it happens, just such an experiment was carried out – by a nine-year-old girl. Emily Rosa, for a school science fair project, had qi-believing practitioners of “therapeutic touch” insert their hands through a hole in a screen and try to determine if another hand was present below theirs. Unsurprisingly, they did no better than chance; their results were indistinguishable from random guessing. Emily’s results were published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, making her the youngest person ever to earn such an honor. If Davis or anyone else thinks they can improve on the performance of the practitioners in that study, I invite them to try it.

The article closes with this blurb about Davis’ book:

This comprehensive guide includes Qigong routines for menopause, insomnia, cancer, osteoporosis, and sexual vitality.

Qigong for cancer? Breathing exercises and waving one’s hands around might help with everyday stress, but to suggest this as effective treatment for a life-threatening medical condition borders on criminal irresponsibility. If there’s any evidence that this technique can give any tangible benefit to cancer sufferers, we would welcome it. If there isn’t, advocates of these ideas should stop offering false hope to the gravely ill.

In closing, I have one more question. Any website on qi will have elaborate charts of the “meridians” and “chakras” that track qi’s flow through the body. My question is: How were these charts derived? Similar to Skeptico’s astrology challenge, I want to know how the ancient people who first came up with these ideas determined all of this. What studies did they conduct, what experiments did they run? Can I see their data for myself?

These are not facetious questions; they are questions that scientists spend their careers answering. If we want to improve our understanding of some phenomenon, we need to tease apart all the threads of causation that contribute to it and test them individually to determine which ones can best be manipulated and in what proportion. If qi is not just a patchwork of anecdote and superstition, if there is something substantive to these beliefs, then there must be a body of evidence underlying it. Can skeptics of qi see this evidence for ourselves?

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    Oh man… this is embarrassing to admit, but I used to be sooo into this shit – I even had a legal paper drawn up which stated that should I develop any form of cancer, I was not to be given chemotherapy, but would instead travel to China to stay at a qigong clinic (can’t recall the name of the particular clinic I chose now, but there are several out there). That particular document has, thankfully, long since been shredded.

    Any system which can be comprehensively debunked by a 9-year-old has very little going for it. It’s so frustrating that so many people are still willing to embrace the hippy, Far-Eastern woo.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    What this passage describes is an excellent way of invoking the ideomotor effect, a phenomenon that’s also exploited by pseudosciences such as dowsing and Ouija boards.

    and Reiki. I’ve confessed before to being an accidental Reiki practitioner and even as I type I can “feel” if I choose the Qi flowing through my palms. It is not surprising that the gullible buy into this stuff, without critical thinking it is easy to convince yourself it’s real.

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    What a fantastically impressive thing for a nine year old to do! I think that’s made my day…

  • mike

    I only believe in Qi when I get stuck with the Q playing Scrabble.

  • http://goddesscassandra.blogspot.com Antigone

    I don’t know anything about “Qi”, but I do know those exercises sure are great for calming down. So I’d be curious about what the physiological reason for that stuff is.

    Same with Reiki. I don’t believe in that sort of energy, but it does feel good when people do it.

  • terrence

    This reminds me of an NBC broadcast from the 1980′s, can’t remember if it was Randi or not, where an “aura reader” interviewed and got to know ten subjects, after which they stood behind ten shields and the reader was to see how many she could match up with the “auras.” Was it way cool when, of course, there was nobody behind the shields.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse,

    something irreducible and magical about life

    Great article, I agree completely. But those words struck me as some you might have used to argue that the human brain will never be reverse engineered and/or duplicated artificially. So I checked back on your earlier post on the subject:

    But I reject the notion that, as general-purpose intelligences, they will ever be able to far surpass the kind of understanding that any educated person already possesses.

    Your use of the word “ever” is categorical. You said this at the same time as you acknowledged the exponential growth in computing enabled by Moore’s Law. At some point those curves cross–unless there is something incredibly different about the human brain. Like if it had Qi flowing through it, for example. That argument has something in common with vitalism. Just sayin’.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    Haven’t had time to go all the way through it yet, but here’s some of my initial concerns:

    As any skeptic should recognize, this is one of the oldest superstititions known to humanity: vitalism, the belief that there’s something irreducible and magical about life.

    How is the claim that there is not something magical or irreducible falsifiable, IYO?

    This belief has persisted for millennia, even as the progressive workings of science reveal more and more about how life works and leave increasingly less room for magic. We’ve studied bacteria, we’ve investigated the cell: at the bottom everything happens through the interplay of genes and chemical reactions. There is no part left over for qi or the soul or vital forces to play. (bold mine)

    To me, that’s just plain, old-fashioned arrogance. You begin by stating we’ve left increasingly less room for the unexplained and undiscovered, then jump immediately to the conclusion that there is no room left. So, a few hundred of legitimate scientific discovery and now there’s no room left for anything new? If you say there is no room left for alternative ideas, that statement is tantamount to implying we know all there is to know regarding the physiology of the body. I don’t buy it, mainly because it’s a claim that has traditionally always proven false. Our horizon of knowledge concerning the human body nearly always seems to expand.

    That’s all for now.

  • Chet

    In the context of the martial arts, I’ve always found the idea of “ki” to be useful as a metaphor for a certain kind of concentration (or anti-concentration) and body/space awareness. When you’re doing it right, you feel “energized”, but I never make the mistake of interpreting that as an actual energy.

  • http://piepalace.ca/blog Erigami

    It’s worth noting that even with something that probably doesn’t work, if the subject believes in what they’re doing, there may be a placebo effect. So no, Qigong routines shouldn’t be substituted for real medicine, but if someone is willing to give them a shot, then there may be an appreciable (and measurable) improvement in their condition.

  • Joffan

    Antigone and Chet make useful points about the possible utility of these fallacies to promote relaxation and focus etc, among those who might otherwise struggle to do so (which is probably everyone at some time or other).

    In a similar vein, homeopathy can be seen as a way of harnessing the placebo effect (and insight into why and how that works would be incredibly useful…). I’d like to use the placebo effect but I’m too skeptical. Does this mean that skepticism needs a health warning?

  • velkyn

    this idiot woman should be shown the terminal cuirass breast cancer that Ebon once had up on this site that another liar claimed to be able to heal.

  • Ben

    “In closing, I have one more question. Any website on qi will have elaborate charts of the “meridians” and “chakras” that track qi’s flow through the body. My question is: How were these charts derived? Similar to Skeptico’s astrology challenge, I want to know how the ancient people who first came up with these ideas determined all of this. What studies did they conduct, what experiments did they run? Can I see their data for myself?”

    I wonder this all the time. I remember first wondering about this when my wife arranged for our cat to receive treatment from an herbalist. I have no trouble believing that this or that herb can produce certain effects or relieve certain symptoms. Why not? But how in the world would anyone know what herbs produced these effects in cats?! (Medical tests using animals are notoriously ungeneralizable to humans.) Long ago, did anyone scientifically study the effects of these herbs in humans? (I doubt it.) Long ago, did anyone scientifically study their effects on cats? (Of course not.)

  • Leum

    How is the claim that there is not something magical or irreducible falsifiable, IYO? (Emphasis added)

    Skepticism 101: The burden of proof is on the positive claimant. In general, negative claims are by nature unfalsifiable. You cannot prove that my friend Joe does not exist, because he moved to Serkatut, they don’t communicate with outsiders, let outsiders in, reveal their location, and no one ever leaves. You cannot prove that Zeus does not exist, because the top of Mount Olympus our eyes see is only a pale reflection of the true Mount Olympus. You cannot prove that there is no teapot orbiting Pluto.

    Because of this, the burden of proof is on the one making the positive claim. Joe does exist, this is his birth certificate and these are his emigration papers. Zeus does exist, the true Mount Olympus has manifested in this reality. Our satellite photographed Russell’s Teapot.

    Likewise, if you believe that there is something magical or irreducible about life, it’s your job to defend that claim, not our job to defeat it.

  • Alex, FCD

    You begin by stating we’ve left increasingly less room for the unexplained and undiscovered, then jump immediately to the conclusion that there is no room left. So, a few hundred of legitimate scientific discovery and now there’s no room left for anything new?

    Adam didn’t say that there’s no room left for any new ideas in neurology and physiology, he said there’s no room left for magic. Similarly, there are still unsolved problems in thermodynamics, but they’re unlikely to be solved by appealing to phlogiston.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Slight tangent: Does anybody else remember Chi Pants? Hugely popular in Berkeley for a while, back in the day. They had little crystals sewn into the back of the waistband, to facilitate the flow of chi (qi) or stimulate the chakras or something.

    You’d think a company with all that well- flowing qi would have been able to stay afloat. But no. I guess the road to bankruptcy was just on their karmic path…

  • lpetrich

    I’ve tried to find a reasonably comprehensive history of vitalism (theories like qi), and I’ve put together the following:

    Vitalism used to be a respectable scientific hypothesis, but increasing research chipped away at it, and vitalism came to seem like some “vital force of the gaps” theory. Though vitalism was largely discredited by the early twentieth century, molecular biology proved to be devastating to vitalism, with the discovery of numerous molecular-level mechanisms.

    Wolfgang Kohler’s turning of ammonium isocyanate to urea did not immediately destroy the vitalist hypothesis that organisms are necessary for making biochemicals like urea, but it was the first of many such syntheses. Berthelot performed several of them a few decades later, dealing a much stronger blow to this hypothesis.

  • Juan Felipe

    Cl: you could falsify the claim that there is nothing magical about life by showing evidence for Qi, Psychic powers, or anyhting of the sort. Take emily`s exoeriment as an example, if qi-believing practitioners of “therapeutic touch” could determine if another hand was present below theirs in a controled enviroment; that would count as evidence for Qi and could lead to falsifying the skeptic position.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Leum,

    The burden of proof is on the positive claimant.

    I know that, but I don’t mind the clarification / correction.

    In general, negative claims are by nature unfalsifiable.

    That was exactly what I meant to convey, perhaps I could’ve phrased it better. The thesis of this post is that Qi is a delusion, reasonably paraphrased as bunk, correct? So essentially, as part of his proof that Qi is bunk, Ebonmuse offers a negative claim as support:

    There is no part left over for qi or the soul or vital forces to play. (bold mine)

    But how can Ebonmuse or anyone else rationally deduce this? How do we know there are no parts left over? Every other time we’ve assumed this about any other aspect of nature, it has generally proven false, right? A few centuries ago, the atom was an absurd proposition. Same with neuroscience, pangea, telephone technology, asteroids and air travel. The brain and its relation to human physiology are parts of nature, correct? If no parts of the brain and human physiology are left over to explain, how is that a little girl who receives a heart transplant from a murder victim can have visions of the killer that lead to an arrest? I think this strange case was successfully prosecuted as well, but don’t quote me on that.

    At any rate, would you agree that Ebonmuse’s is a negative claim? If so, then would you agree that it’s unfalsifiable? And if the purpose of this essay is to argue that Qi is bunk, how does an unfalsifiable, negative claim determine anything? It distills to, “Qi is bunk because I say there is no part left over for it to play.”

    Do you really believe that?

  • http://liquidthinker.wordpress.com LiquidThinker

    Wow, dude. Reading this just like interrupted my whole flow of energy. I guess some crystals should help.

    In any case, I thought I’d take a stab at the “no part left over” controversy. To my mind, this is taken to mean that there are no phenomena for which a soul or “vital force” has any explanatory power. There is simply nothing such a hypothesis explains that is not better explained via materialistic means. By better explained, I mean measurable, predictive, and falsifiable. The last comment from cl mentioned a murder victim’s vindication after a heart transport. I suppose that could be seen as sufficiently exceptional enough to think about. Any references? I would be surprised if an ordinary explanation could not be found upon digging more deeply into it.

    Next, the qi “teacher” indicated that there was a magnetic pulse associated with qi. She didn’t say it felt like a magnetic pulse, but that most practitioners felt a magnetic pulse. Now there’s something we could measure. What would she say should be the strength of the magnetic field; how does she arrive at that number? Put a moving charge (variation of Millikan’s oil drop, perhaps) or primitive hodoscope in front of the practitioners hand and measure the radius of the deflection to find the magnetic field.

    Lastly, Leum, what are you doing with Joe’s birth certificate?

  • Samuel Skinner

    “A few centuries ago, the atom was an absurd proposition. ”

    The atom was discovered over 2300 years ago using logic and observation. The Greeks, of course.

    “Same with neuroscience, pangea, telephone technology, asteroids and air travel.”

    The earliest surgeries we know of where cutting holes in the skull. Trepaning? They were to remove demons/alleviate pressure on the brain.

    “At any rate, would you agree that Ebonmuse’s is a negative claim? If so, then would you agree that it’s unfalsifiable? And if the purpose of this essay is to argue that Qi is bunk, how does an unfalsifiable, negative claim determine anything? It distills to, “Qi is bunk because I say there is no part left over for it to play.” ”

    That is how things work- we use the simplest explanation that answers everything.

  • http://www.ateosmexicanos.com/portal/ Juan Felipe

    I disagree that negative claims are unfalsifiable; in fact, I think they are usually easier to falsify that positive ones. For example, if I say that there are no dogs in Colombia, then there is at least a very simple way to prove me wrong: Going to Colombia and showing me a dog.

  • Leum

    I have Joe’s birth certificate because I didn’t think he was born in the US despite the testimony of the doctor, the fact that the hospital in Nebraska said he was born there, and that there was no reason to think he wasn’t; so I sued the state of Nebraska for his certificate.

    cl, thanks for the clarification.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Your use of the word “ever” is categorical. You said this at the same time as you acknowledged the exponential growth in computing enabled by Moore’s Law. At some point those curves cross–unless there is something incredibly different about the human brain. Like if it had Qi flowing through it, for example. That argument has something in common with vitalism.

    On the contrary: I believe that my argument in that regard was of a piece with my rejection of vitalism. I don’t believe there’s anything magical or unique about consciousness. The human brain is a biological machine designed by evolution for the processing of information, and I see no reason why we couldn’t realize the same information-processing competence in a different substrate.

    What I reject is the idea that we could, simply by adding more processing power, create a consciousness that is qualitatively superior to human intelligence – in the sense of being able to draw inferences from a given quantity of information that no human being could ever draw given the same information. (This is opposed to mere quantitative superiority, which would allow more detailed exploration of some body of information than any human brain could perform in the same length of time.) There is only one way to be rational, after all.

  • Chet

    In a similar vein, homeopathy can be seen as a way of harnessing the placebo effect (and insight into why and how that works would be incredibly useful…).

    For the most part the placebo effect isn’t that hard to understand, if you think about how medical research is done. How do you know when someone who was sick gets better? Well, they tell you. They say something like “my stomach doesn’t hurt anymore” or even just “I’m feeling a lot better, thanks.”

    People don’t like to disappoint, we have an almost instinctive need to agree with each other, and so when you think you’re being treated, you feel an obligation to “get better.” So, you say you’re getting better. Maybe you even convince yourself that you feel better. You don’t want to disappoint the doctor, right?

    A lot of illnesses, after all, “cure” themselves. Your headache goes away eventually, whether you take a pill or not. Even cancer has been known to go into remission spontaneously.

    The placebo effect isn’t magic, it’s just a consequence of the fact that health outcomes are somewhat subjective, and rely on a substantial degree of self-reporting by patients.

  • http://goddesscassandra.blogspot.com Antigone

    I actually think that I remember seeing some sort of study that said that you don’t actually need to believe in chi or whatever to have the exercises be beneficial. Total skeptics still had reduced blood pressure and a lower heart rate after doing the meditation/ focused breathing thing. And I know I sure as hell didn’t believe raki did a damn thing- until someone tried it on me.

  • Leum

    That’s because meditation and focused breathing are physiological actions. Controlled breathing is more likely to be abdominal and slower, which both have benefits; clearing (or at least lowering the amount of thought in) the mind effects relaxation of the body. Both lower blood pressure and heart rate.

  • Alex, FCD

    But how can Ebonmuse or anyone else rationally deduce this? How do we know there are no parts left over?

    Once again, you are misrepresenting the statement. Nobody has claimed that there are no new ideas to be had in neurology, just that this particular idea has outlived its usefulness. We know this because the things that qi and élan vital were supposed to explain are now handled by better, more parsimonious and testable explanations.

    Similarly, we don’t have a complete theory of, say, what causes schizophrenia, but we can be pretty sure it isn’t demonic possession. Would you take the position that, since our knowledge of schizophrenia is of yet incomplete, we are allowed to postulate that there are just a few demons?

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse,

    It seems possible, (I agree not guaranteed), that AI’s could supersede human cognition. Though there may only be one way to be rational, machines may turn out to be better at it than we are. If that turns out to be true, it will be because they can be designed without the evolutionary structures that seem to draw us toward comfort ahead of unvarnished truth.

    Reading the book “Human” by Michael Gazzaniga, I’ve learned a lot about what makes us different from animals. Some animals can learn words or symbols but not create their own syntax. Some animals have a theory of mind, but not as complex as humans. They can only track limited intentionality. These differences come down to the presence or absence of certain structures in the brain. So it’s possible that AIs could be built with structures that we don’t have, enabling them to make inferences that we can’t. It’s not just more processing power, but how it’s arranged. After all, with AI, different ways of thinking might just come about through a simple software upgrade (provided by humans or written by the AIs themselves).

    But I’m glad to know that you don’t think there’s something special about human brain tissue (like Qi). I do think that ideas about Qi are a terrible holdover from past superstitions, and only block understanding of the sufficiency of biochemistry for life. How something feels says nothing about what it is. Feelings of energy flow through the body could be explained any number of ways. Many people can cause “tingling” sensations or heightened awareness of a body part just by placing their attention there. Probably some natural outgrowth of our nervous system and brain based “body map.” I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’m sure all these feelings have actual names that can be traced to known processes. As for Qi, the commenters who claim we “can’t prove it doesn’t exist” are just blustering and proof-burden shifting like all good theists do. Your point stands.

  • Javaman

    As someone who has an interest in Zen, never having a history of mind/body separation as was started in the West by Descartes and the Catholic church, eastern medicine and mystical practices focus on the emotional experience of being alive, devoid of analytical reasoning. With this emotional experience as a way of being, it’s possible to isolate different physiological systems within your body when all mental chatter ceases. It’s possible to feel just your heart beating or your stomach digesting or your muscles aching, etc. These different body systems report back to the brain a sensory/somatic state, so if your heart felt weak (or strong) it could be described as a chakra. If you can remember the last time you were very sexually aroused, did you sense a lower chakra coming into play in your groin? I think eastern culture just describes things more on an organic level and some confusion may exist in the translation of different energy systems. I ain’t saying, I’m just saying.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    **DISCLAIMER: The new arrangement is that I stop by no more than once a day. If you don’t like talking to me, don’t address my comments. Although certain exceptions now have to be made in the interest of keeping the peace, I usually respond to everyone who addresses my comments because it’s my nature to be thorough in debate. I consider it courteous, and I’m aware others who lack the omniscience required to know another human being’s motives consider it trolling. Indeed, even the whole world is pink through rose-colored glasses. As always, I’m questioning myself.

    Javaman,

    I agree with your comment. The whole “spiritual vs. material” trope has never been anything more than one grandiose false dichotomy, IMO. A thoughtful comment, yours was.

    LiquidThinker,

    …there are no phenomena for which a soul or “vital force” has any explanatory power. (bold mine)

    But how do we know? This claim cannot be supported by evidence. Hence, per rationalism, I personally reject this claim. Do you mean to say, no phenomena you know of? Do we have knowledge of all phenomena? See closing comments to Alex, FCD, also pertinent in this regard.

    There is simply nothing such a hypothesis explains that is not better explained via materialistic means. (bold mine)

    Again, how do we know? See above. Taken at face-value, this potentially undermines your previous assertion, which was that there are no phenomena for which a soul or vital force has any explanatory power. So is it that there are no phenomena the Qi / soul hypotheses explain? Or do they actually explain some phenomena, and it’s just that you feel materialistic explanations have stronger explanatory power in those cases? Help me understand.

    I would be surprised if an ordinary explanation could not be found upon digging more deeply into it.

    So would I, and I would also counter that ordinary is both subjective and relative, and nor does ordinary entail aspiritual or aQi-esque.

    Any references?

    I’m looking into some stuff right now. For cases with similar ramifications, look into the research of Prof. Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona.

    Samuel Skinner,

    The atom was discovered over 2300 years ago using logic and observation. The Greeks, of course.

    I’m aware of the Greeks’ early postulations. I’m referring to atomism as a scientific theory proposed in 1808 by Dalton. Many scientists doubted the existence of the atom well into the twentieth century, and my point stands.

    The earliest surgeries we know of where cutting holes in the skull. Trepaning? They were to remove demons/alleviate pressure on the brain.

    Correct. Do you call that neuroscience? By neuroscience I generally refer to the findings of the last 400 or so years. For example, 1530-ish, Massa was well on the tail of cerebrospinal fluid. A few decades later, Aranzi gave us the word hippocampus. A decade or so after that, Varolio named the pons. I’m not talking about surgery; trepanning goes 8,500 years back to France, and by no means would I equate trepanning with neuroscience in a serious debate.

    That is how things work- we use the simplest explanation that answers everything.

    I disagree with your paraphrase of Ockham’s Razor, and so does Wikipedia:

    [Ockham's Razor] is often paraphrased as “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.” In other words, when multiple competing hypotheses are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selecting the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities. It is in this sense that Occam’s razor is usually understood. This is, however, incorrect. Occam’s razor is not concerned with the simplicity or complexity of a good explanation as such; it only demands that the explanation be free of elements that have nothing to do with the phenomenon (and the explanation). (Wikipedia, ital. mine)

    And on what evidence might you say that Qi / spirit have nothing to do with any or all physiological phenomena? And that’s really besides my point, which is that throughout the history of science, doubters and absolutists are often proven wrong.

    juan felipe,

    Good point, although, there is a fundamental categorical difference between Ebon’s negative claim and your example – the luxury of going to Colombia and finding a dog is reasonably afforded to anybody with enough money and time away from work. Though falsifiability itself is a relative concept that widens scope as technology and knowledge expand, technology and knowledge might someday evolve such that validation of Qi / spirit is possible. Or maybe not. Qi / spirit might be inherently unfalsifiable. Or maybe not. Qi / spirit might not even exist at all. My belief is that something real in this regard does. Where I seem to differ from Ebonmuse and some others in this thread is that my mind is open, and the empirical foundations of this open-mindedness are interspersed all throughout this comment to various people.

    **Note to all commenters: Don’t waste our time with irrelevant questions about unicorns and leprechauns, thinking it somehow relates to my last statement.

    Alex, FCD,

    Once again, you are misrepresenting the statement.

    Yeah? Did I say Ebonmuse claimed there are, “no new ideas to be had in neurology?” Absolutely not. Might that have been your own paraphrase?

    Incidentally, I’m claiming the converse, that perhaps there are new ideas to be had in neurology, based on hundreds of years of previous evidence, cases upon cases where science thought mistakenly that it had explained the totality of phenomenon X, Y, or Z. As with the atom and heliocentrism, the history of science is reasonably describable as a history of doubters being proven wrong, wouldn’t you say?

    Here’s Ebonmuse’s statement I took issue with:

    We’ve studied bacteria, we’ve investigated the cell: at the bottom everything happens through the interplay of genes and chemical reactions. There is no part left over for qi or the soul or vital forces to play. (bold mine)

    What I take issue with is the scope of the statement. To say that everything happens through genes and chemical reactions is to assume we know about everything that happens. It may or may not be true that everything happens through genes and chemical reactions – that’s not my point, nor is it what I want to argue either for or against, because my hunch is that spirit is what informs the material scaffolding of our bodies. But that’s just a hunch, and I’m not proposing it as an argument or a defense of anything.

    Rather, my argument is that I find Ebonmuse’s claim a bit premature, possibly arrogant, and severely challenged by anomalous cases of from various scientific disciplines that suggest perhaps there could be “something left over” for Qi / spirit to explain. Some people say everything happens in our brains. Are you one of them? If so, what’s your informed opinion on cellular memory and the fact that heart transplant recipients often manifest donor personality traits? See my last remark to LiquidThinker above. If conventional research is just beginning to ask these questions, and lacks even a rudiment of proof in any direction, would you say again with such confidence that,

    …the things that qi and élan vital were supposed to explain are now handled by better, more parsimonious and testable explanations?

    I can’t read your mind. What are the things you assume Qi or élan vital were supposed to explain? Why offer something nobody can reasonably argue against unless they wish to assume they know what you had in mind? As we can see, surely, unexplainable phenomena and undiscovered knowledge still exist, right?

    I could be wrong, but my comments suggest I clearly understood Ebonmuse’s claim in the specific context he made it. Is at all possible that perhaps you misunderstood me?

    BlackSun,

    I do think that ideas about Qi are a terrible holdover from past superstitions, and only block understanding of the sufficiency of biochemistry for life.

    Although I feel it’s perfectly reasonable that Qi / spirit exist, I will certainly concede that undue focus upon them can influence the eschewing of empiricism and blur scientific reality. This occurs in the people who fear science, and I’m certainly not one of them.

    How something feels says nothing about what it is. Feelings of energy flow through the body could be explained any number of ways. Many people can cause “tingling” sensations or heightened awareness of a body part just by placing their attention there.

    I agree, but I would say how something feels says nothing absolutely conclusive about what it is. I also feel the true implications of your last sentence above are far from being satisfactorily understood.

    As for Qi, the commenters who claim we “can’t prove it doesn’t exist” are just blustering and proof-burden shifting like all good theists do.

    While I don’t agree with the sweeping generalization that “all good theists” do this, I agree with your general point, and I’d like to clarify that I’m not one of those commenters. My argument is not that skeptics can’t prove Qi / spirit doesn’t exist. That argument reveals basic ignorance of who retains the burden of proof. My claim is that,

    We’ve studied bacteria, we’ve investigated the cell: at the bottom everything happens through the interplay of genes and chemical reactions. There is no part left over for qi or the soul or vital forces to play,

    seems amateur and closed-minded, because it amounts to resting our scientific laurels, and myriad cases occurring over hundreds of years have shown this approach typically proves fatal to genuine scientific advancement. Time will tell.

  • Nes

    cl,

    Gary Schwartz is, to put it bluntly, not a very reliable source. See some criticisms of his methods if you want to know why. A 9-year-old girl had better experimental controls than he did (starting roughly 1/2-way down the article).

    Speaking of Schwartz, his Wikipedia article is chock full of strange and credulous woo-ish ideas stated as bald fact, not to mention flat out incomprehensible sentences… anyone care to do some house cleaning?

    Schwartz believes the future of advanced science is in the hands of a transforming subset of paranormal children; the children of mediums and possibily the Indigo children and it is important that the Medium (tv series) is appearing at this moment of history, the first decade of the twenty first century.[14] In the nineteen seventies it was believed by some individuals that a new sixth sense had come about as the next startling evolutionary step. Uri Geller, Peter Hurkos, Ingo Swann and claims by a small number of scientists and the authors of “fringe” and occult books that children were bending dinner-ware by telekinesis were offered as examples of this giant leap forward in man’s evolution-one that could save the world.[15]

    Man, and I thought that Mohinder on Heroes was bad…

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    There is of course no disputing that there are still things to discover about biological processes. It is not inconceivable that there are “energies” existing at some scale in the universe that we have yet to measure, or develop the equipment to detect. However, so far we have discovered nothing at the macro or micro scale that requires Qi or any spirit medium to explain it. If we did find some measurable force or ether that appeared to permeate the universe and was associated with “life” in some inseparable way, no doubt we would call it Qi or somesuch and look for evidence that we. as living organisms could manipulate it in some way. But that would not mean that we had “discovered” Qi as peddled by westernised alternative medicine or that it had any supernatural origin.

  • lpetrich

    LiquidThinker:
    …there are no phenomena for which a soul or “vital force” has any explanatory power.
    cl:
    But how do we know? This claim cannot be supported by evidence. Hence, per rationalism, I personally reject this claim. Do you mean to say, no phenomena you know of? Do we have knowledge of all phenomena? See closing comments to Alex, FCD, also pertinent in this regard.

    Me: It’s an extrapolation from the track record of mechanistic explanations like molecular-biology ones. Vitalist explanations nowadays look like “vital force of the gaps” explanations, and the track record of “X of the gaps” hypotheses is VERY bad.

    cl:
    And on what evidence might you say that Qi / spirit have nothing to do with any or all physiological phenomena? And that’s really besides my point, which is that throughout the history of science, doubters and absolutists are often proven wrong.

    As Carl Sagan pointed out, they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. Being heretical is no guarantee of being right. Look at the track record of Qi / spirit some time — has it ever been isolated in the lab?

    cl:
    What I take issue with is the scope of the statement. To say that everything happens through genes and chemical reactions is to assume we know about everything that happens. It may or may not be true that everything happens through genes and chemical reactions – that’s not my point, nor is it what I want to argue either for or against, because my hunch is that spirit is what informs the material scaffolding of our bodies. But that’s just a hunch, and I’m not proposing it as an argument or a defense of anything.

    Hunches are no substitute for real arguments. In fact, I think that this reliance on hunches reveals a lack of a good case.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    **DISCLAIMER: The new arrangement is that I stop by only on a controlled schedule. If you don’t like talking to me, don’t. And don’t develop your arguments too far, because we might disagree too many times, or derail the thread.

    Nes,

    Besides criticizing Schwartz for ideas unrelated to my arguments, do you have anything to add about Qi or cellular memory, or any other phenomenon for which standard explanations cannot yet be ascribed? No, of course the gaps in our knowledge aren’t evidence for Qi / spirit; that’s not what I’m arguing. Perhaps something like Qi / spirit comes into play in spontaneous regressions, but we can’t really say, because we don’t fully understand spontaneous remission yet, and since there are clearly phenomena we don’t fully understand yet, all-inclusive arguments seem a bit premature, IMO. Is that position unreasonable?

    Steve Bowen,

    It seems we take the open-minded approach, but I also see the closed-minded approach here:

    However, so far we have discovered nothing at the macro or micro scale that requires Qi or any spirit medium to explain it.

    How do you know? Such is a claim I cannot simply accept, on account of the type of claim it is and its complete lack of evidence. That we can explain the material basis of phenomena X-Y does not preclude that some underlying field with which we are integrated cannot exist. How can anyone say that Qi / spirit are absolutely unnecessary in everything that’s been discovered? What that is physical precludes the spiritual?

    Do we have acceptable explanations for spontaneous remission that square with reductionist constructs of mind and matter? I don’t think we do, and that we do not does not prove Qi / spirit, either, so no crying about God of the gaps. Isn’t John Matzke’s well-documented story consistent with ideas of something like what’s described here? Through rest, meditation, outdoor activity, visualization, etc., the evidence is consistent with the idea that this man was able to consciously cause a spontaneous remission. Interestingly, these are all among the very same activities many ancients denoted as Qi- or spirit-strengthening.

    lpetrich,

    Look at the track record of Qi / spirit some time — has it ever been isolated in the lab?

    That’s a loaded statement though, because I’m not necessarily arguing that Qi / spirit will be or can be isolated in the lab. I don’t know. Falsifiability itself is relative to technology. Currently, I don’t know how one could test for the presence of a field purported to be meta- the one we’re in.

    Hunches are no substitute for real arguments.

    What, couldn’t think of anything original here? I said that, and my point isn’t to make a countercase here. Only share my opinion that some of the arguments are quite closed-minded or denialist in nature, and that progress typically dethrones closed-minded, denialist arguments. Do you really disagree with that?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    cl

    It seems we take the open-minded approach, but I also see the closed-minded approach here:

    However, so far we have discovered nothing at the macro or micro scale that requires Qi or any spirit medium to explain it.

    How do you know? Such is a claim I cannot simply accept, on account of the type of claim it is and its complete lack of evidence.

    Sorry, but despite your protestations this is a GOTG argument, with a little argument from personal incredulity thrown in. I suggest we have found nothing that requires Qi or anything similar. I concede that doesn’t preclude it being there, (invisible ineffeble and generally behaving in a completeley irrational way)but if it is it does nothing detectable. Like God we are just as well assuming it’s not there at all. Anecdotes about spontaneous remission and “cellular memory” do not make the case for something other-worldly going on. Show me somebody regrowing a severed limb after Reiki or faith healing and I might reconsider.

  • lpetrich

    cl:
    Perhaps something like Qi / spirit comes into play in spontaneous regressions, but we can’t really say, because we don’t fully understand spontaneous remission yet, and since there are clearly phenomena we don’t fully understand yet, all-inclusive arguments seem a bit premature, IMO. Is that position unreasonable?

    That still looks like “Qi of the gaps”.

    lp:
    Look at the track record of Qi / spirit some time — has it ever been isolated in the lab?

    cl:
    That’s a loaded statement though, because I’m not necessarily arguing that Qi / spirit will be or can be isolated in the lab. I don’t know.

    I will concede that expecting isolation in a lab may be asking too much. But one ought to find some unambiguous evidence. Consider how other forces and effects were discovered, like X-rays. Once one knew what to look for, evidence of X-rays was rather glaringly apparent.

    lp:
    Hunches are no substitute for real arguments.

    cl:
    What, couldn’t think of anything original here? I said that, and my point isn’t to make a countercase here. Only share my opinion that some of the arguments are quite closed-minded or denialist in nature, and that progress typically dethrones closed-minded, denialist arguments. Do you really disagree with that?

    So your claim is that if you reject vital-force-of-the-gaps arguments, you are acting like some orthodox ox?

    And what’s so great about hunches, anyway?

  • Nes

    cl,

    I was criticizing Schwartz because you brought him up as a source and I thought it worth pointing out that I know that at least some of his research methods are sloppy. This makes it more likely that the research that you were promoting is also sloppy. (Unless you think he uses rigorous controls in one area of research, but not another?) I admit that I haven’t really looked at anything that he’s done lately, so maybe he has improved. If you have a particular study in mind, I’ll take a look at it (assuming that I can view it for free, it’s detailed, etc.), though I’m not going to hold my breath.

    As for qi/chi in general, I was in to reiki for a bit. My mom had gone through some program and became a reiki “master” and was “teaching” me a few things, such as the “feeling energy” thing quoted in the OP. I could “feel” the energy between my hands as like a magnet, like they were being drawn towards each other (in fact, I can still do it, even without warming up; I did it just now while typing this). I could “feel” the “energy field” on a person as they lay on a table to receive “treatment”. I could feel the “energy field” around trees; they were — just as my mom told me before I tried — quite large.

    But, I had my doubts. If people could do this — have been doing this, for thousands of years (as I was told) — why aren’t doctors doing this? One couldn’t tell me that every single doctor is motivated purely by greed and just wants to make money by pumping people full of drugs (which is an argument I hear all too often; never mind that the last time I visited a doctor I was told to change my diet and see if that fixed my problem before they did anything else). I also noticed, while practicing in the dark while lying in bed, that my hands frequently bumped in to each other before I “felt” the energy field. Why would that happen? I never had any problems doing it on a whim at any other time.

    Finally, I decided to do the ultimate test. Trees have, as already “established”, large “energy fields”; I could “feel” them from a couple yards away. It should be extremely simple to feel that “energy field” before I bump in to the tree if I have my eyes closed, right?

    Wrong.

    I couldn’t “feel” it until I actually saw the tree. The simplest, most obvious conclusion was that there is no “energy field” and it was all in my head. Yes, it’s possible that there is one, but it can only be felt when you can see for whatever reason, but if I have to choose between that and the mental equivalent of an optical illusion, guess which I’ll go with?

    I had some more to say about other things, but this is getting long, so I’ll just wrap it up here. I’d say that it’s possible that such a thing as qi exists — so it’s reasonable to keep the option open — but I see no compelling evidence nor reason to believe that it does — so it’s not reasonable to believe that it actually does.

    (I decided to look up John Metzke really quick; I’d suggest reading this article, especially page 4. It basically says everything that I would have.)

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    Steve,

    If you really think I’m making a GOTG argument then you’re misunderstanding what it is I’m trying to ask you. There are many phenomena we do not fully understand. I am not arguing that because we don’t understand these phenomena, such is proof or even evidence that Qi exists. That would be a GOTG argument, and that’s not what I’m saying.

    And when I say I can’t accept your statement, it’s not for some arbitrary reason, such that you can claim argument from personal incredulity, if that’s what you mean. I’m not saying the lack of evidence for the statement in question proves my case.

    Rather, I’m asking you to justify a claim you made, this one sentence I took issue with:

    However, so far we have discovered nothing at the macro or micro scale that requires Qi or any spirit medium to explain it.

    How can you know this when discovered phenomena exist that are still unexplained?

    lpetrich,

    That still looks like “Qi of the gaps”.

    It would be if I somehow argued that our ignorance surrounding phenomena X constituted evidence for Qi / spirit. That’s not what I’m getting at.

    So your claim is that if you reject vital-force-of-the-gaps arguments, you are acting like some orthodox ox?

    That’s not what I’m trying to put across. People here are saying that we’ve sufficiently explained everything at the macro / micro level such that Qi / spirit is not necessary. I’m objecting to that, because there are still so many unexplained and misunderstood phenomena. I’m specifically wanting to know how people who hold this opinion justify it.

    Nes,

    I agree that it would be difficult to feel trees walking around blindfolded.

    And this is basically along the lines of what I’ve been looking for in this thread:

    I’d say that it’s possible that such a thing as qi exists — so it’s reasonable to keep the option open — but I see no compelling evidence nor reason to believe that it does — so it’s not reasonable to believe that it actually does.

    That seems open-minded, yet maintaining conviction; You at least keep the option open. Could you further respect the person who sees compelling evidence and/or has good reason to believe that Qi / spirit exists? That would seem fair.

    As far as Matzke, I read that article a long time ago. His case demonstrates that a person has undergone allegedly Qi-strengthening lifestyle changes that were followed by a documented spontaneous remission of cancer. Of course, skeptics are free to look at it as a miracle of nutrition or whatever.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    cl
    O.K then let me re-phrase it this way: So far as we currently understand all the phenomena investigated to date no vital force/Qi/spirit essence etc has ever been a necessary explanation. There is nothing to suggest that currently unexplained phenomena (examples perhaps? just to jolly the debate along)will require anything other than naturalist solutions. To suggest that all the time there are things to know, Qi could possible be the the solution is still GOTG reasoning.
    It’s not as though I have always been so sceptical. As I said at the top of the comments, like Nes I have “studied” Reiki, in fact I am a “level 2 practitioner” for what it’s worth. At school (many years ago) I founded a psychic research society where I investigated the telepathic abilities of a large sample of my fellow students. My ex wife is a practicing Wiccan. Honestly there is no end to the woo I’ve exposed myself to over the last thirty or forty years; none of it has ever demonstrated to me that it works.
    I am sure that if you practice Yoga/Marshall Arts, adopt Qi strengthening life styles, meditate and arrange your furniture according to Feng Shui you will feel happier, healthier and more relaxed and in control of your life. But it will all be for perfectly understood natural physiological reasons.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Nes,

    Wrong.

    I couldn’t “feel” it until I actually saw the tree.

    Ah, but the energy gets to the sensing portions of your brain through your eyes…I mean, everyone knows that! ;)

  • Nes

    I just remembered this morning that I could “feel” an “energy field” around inanimate objects as well; things that weren’t ever alive, such as a metal swing set or a pane of glass. That had just put another nail in the coffin as far as I was concerned. (Unless I was “feeling” some sort of “universal energy field” and not qi, but again, I find the mental illusion explanation more likely.) I don’t remember if I had figured that out before or after my tree experiment (which was quite a few years ago).

    Regarding Metzke, as the article says, there are people who have tried what he did and died anyway, and there are people who have done the opposite, stressing out constantly, who have lived. His case looks like a rare (and I need to stress that this is rare) “edge of the bell curve” case, that’s all.

    Could you further respect the person who sees compelling evidence and/or has good reason to believe that Qi / spirit exists? That would seem fair.

    The person? Yes, most certainly. I may think that my mother is mistaken, but I haven’t lost all respect for her because of that.

    The idea or belief itself? Not unless the person is willing to share the evidence. Sadly, every bit of evidence I’ve seen can more easily be explained as confirmation bias, placebo, regression to the mean, etc., etc. So at this point, no I can not.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    **DISCLAIMER: I will most likely not return to this thread for at least 72 hours after this comment, if at all. Sorry for any inconvenience, I’m enjoying this conversation, but my new leash is only so long, and I’ve been anxious to get onto the Lee Strobel thread. Also, anyone can hit me on my blog where we can talk freely and with zero fear of being censored.

    Nes,

    I’m happy with where we left off. Your responses indicate to me that although you don’t believe in Qi, you are open-minded. This puts you in an entirely different category than the naysayers. Thanks for sharing your anecdotes and all, they’re certainly interesting.

    Steve,

    To suggest that all the time there are things to know, Qi could possible be the the solution is still GOTG reasoning.

    1) How much clearer can I make it that this is not my argument? I’m not saying, “See the gap in our knowledge? It’s evidence for Qi.” I’m not trying to prove or argue for Qi. I’ve stated this three times now. A GOTG argument happens when there’s a gap in scientific knowledge and some believer points to that gap as evidence for God. If I’m not pointing to the gaps in our knowledge as evidence for Qi, how does this claim stand?

    And let’s digress for a second about what is and isn’t a GOTG argument. Scientists posit hypotheses, concepts and ideas to fill gaps in knowledge quite often. Nobody charged Einstein with making a GOTG argument for supposing his cosmological constant explained the gaps in the knowledge of his day, did they? Of course not. So please, save the GOTG card for where it is actually appropriate.

    2) An argument from personal incredulity occurs when I say, “I can’t / won’t / don’t believe you, so I’m right / my position makes more sense.” If I’m not making a positive claim for Qi, how does this claim stand?

    3) So what am I saying, then? You said,

    So far as we currently understand all the phenomena investigated to date no vital force/Qi/spirit essence etc has ever been a necessary explanation.

    So what’s your point? Before its discovery, was magnetite ever a necessary explanation for the uncanny abilities of the homing pigeon? We just took for granted that the birds instinctively knew which way to fly, but “Because they do” is just as inadequate as “Because God did it” in terms of explanatory power.

    There is nothing to suggest that currently unexplained phenomena will require anything other than naturalist solutions.

    Of course not, because science proceeds from an assumption of methodological naturalism whose very definition allows only naturalist solutions by default. Natural is simply an adjective used to denote that which we can deduce empirically, and that which we can deduce empirically has been expanding exponentially for some time now. Is there anything to suggest Qi would not be a ‘naturalist solution’ if it were discovered?

    Before Einstein and QM people didn’t think unexplained phenomena would require anything other than Newtonian solutions, either. They were clearly wrong.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    cl
    We’ll agree to drop the GOTG debate then, anyway this is more interesting.

    So what’s your point? Before its discovery, was magnetite ever a necessary explanation for the uncanny abilities of the homing pigeon? We just took for granted that the birds instinctively knew which way to fly, but “Because they do” is just as inadequate as “Because God did it” in terms of explanatory power.

    No scientist would ever take “because they do” as an explanation. Someone interested in the phenomenon would test a series of hypotheses such as is the pidgeon responding to;air currents, polarised light, star fields, geography, magnetic fields, anything else. Once established that it was magnetic fields (if it is) they would then go on to find an empirical mechanism for that to work, which if you are correct (I haven’t checked) someone did. Qi is not equivalent to magnetite or for that matter to Einstein’s cosmological constant the presence of both of which can be falsified. Qi is pure vitalism, as it is presented in the eastern tradition only trained practitioners can subjectively detect it.

  • Nes

    Thank you, cl. There were other things that I wanted to discuss, but I can let them rest.

  • Bobby Lynn

    I happened to come across this discussion and thought that I would comment. The concept that Qi is some kind of mystical energy equivalent to the “Force” of Star Wars fame is a total distortion based on marketing hype, combined with the plots of HK Kung Fu movies. That the human body does operate on energy flows, both electrical and biochemical, is established fact. The physicians of ancient China developed the theory of Qi to account for this non-mechanical aspect of bodily function. The traditional martial artists had an obvious concern for health and efficient bodily function and used the concept of Qi to describe to development and coordination of mechanical and non-mechanical (not mystical)aspects of human movement and energy generation. While the theories they developed to explain the practical results obtained may not have been completely accurate, none of it was ever intended to have mystical or religious connotations.

    Like the Greek philosophers, the ancient Taoists were a mixture of philosopher and scientist. They developed theories to explain the Qi phenomenon based on the available science and knowledge of the day, and like all philosophers tended to write about it in rather abstract terms.

    However, some self proclaimed Taoists were no more than con men, who naturally sought to find a commercial application for Qi. Combine this with the liberties taken by writers of the popular entertainment of the day (opera, books and bards/storytellers) and you have a great deal of exaggeration.

    A comparison could be made to the development of human psychology/behaviour and the understanding of mental illness in the West. That there is a seemingly limitless supply of quack remedies for mental and emotional illnesses, and the fact that there is still a great deal of disagreement over how our minds actually work even today, does not make the work of Sigmund Freud and those that came after him acts of fraud or superstition inspired fantasy.

  • Scotlyn

    I would just like to post a couple of scholarly references which may be relevant to this discussion. The article accessed here: The Spark of Life: The Role of Electric Fields in Regulating Cell Behaviour Using the Eye as a Model System has this to say about energy in the body:

    “Electricity is a physical phenomenon that centres upon the behaviour of charged particles: it is a form of energy created by the movement of electrons, positrons, ions and other subatomic particles, all of which are the stuff of molecules and cells. As a result, the work done and the forces generated by this energy or by these moving particles can be described in simple mathematical equations…”

    The movement of the small bioelectric DC currents studied here and in numerous other articles by this research team (as opposed to the “AC” type movement of an action potential along a nerve), may flow through and between cells finding a path of least resistance. Such a flow may create a “channel” that (like a shipping lane) represents the real movement of traffic without actually creating a tangible structure. (Eg you will not be able to detect a shipping lane in a photograph of any given area of sea, nevertheless, the lines on a map refer to a real traffic phenomenon).

    If this is the case, then it explains why the experiment described here: Electrical Correlates of Acupuncture Points was able to detect discernible electrical differences between certain acupuncture points and the surrounding tissues. The team that wrote this paper was mainly engaged in researching limb regeneration and the piezoelectrical properties of bone, and decided to research the acupuncture question because someone asked and, as scientists with a suitably equipped lab, they decided the question was worth answering.

    Please note that the claims I wish to advance here are not very extraordinary. Please take notice of what I am NOT arguing. The above, and the many other experiments into DC bioelectrical fields and their roles in neural tube and organ formation and limb budding in fetuses, in amphibian limb regeneration, in wound healing and many other physiological processes still being researched, do NOT provide support for a theory of vitalism. They merely add a new electrical dimension to our primarily chemical-based understanding of physiology, and some would argue that it is the missing dimension. Chemicals alone, for example, struggle to explain how a limb finds its way into a particular shape. The discovery of active electrical fields that precede, and perhaps guide, the developing limb may help explain the mystery of shape. (These fields are readily detectable in the water surrounding amphibian eggs with their developing fetuses. They appear to precede limb bud formation by a matter of hours or days, depending on the species. Experiments disrupting these electrical fields in various ways readily produce a range of developmental errors – errors of shape).

    However, although bioelectricalfields do not equal vitalism, they MAY be able to suggest a biologically plausible explanation for some of the effects of acupuncture, and certainly do not contradict the theory, if you restrict the theory to the simple assertion that there is a flow of something [possibly electrical current] along specific pathways in the body, while disregarding the aspects of the theory that relate to the relation between humans and the cosmos. Please note this is a small claim, not an extraordinary one.

    Whatever “Qi” MEANT to either the ancient Chinese, or to modern Chinese practitioners of acupuncture – and it is by no means clear to Western scholars of Chinese language and culture that this concept AT ALL resembles the Western concept of vitalism – what they may have been DOING, then and now, is manipulating/modifying the body’s medically verified bioelectrical fields. With, perhaps, lesser or greater effects depending on many factors, not least the practitioner’s own level of deftness and skill.

    Biological plausibility is not necessarily an argument in favour of a wholehearted acceptance of acupuncture – obviously, it must still prove its worth and effectiveness in fair tests vs other treatments, and vs. placebo (and the question of what would constitute a “placebo” acupuncture treatment remains contentious, while it is practically impossible to figure out how you could “blind” a practitioner – although surgery and other medical procedures would also suffer from the second difficulty – a surgeon would know whether s/he has done the real procedure or a placebo – so the solution for “blinding” an acupuncturist may turn out to be whatever method is used to “blind” a surgeon).

    However, the claim I do feel is perfectly justifiable, given the establishment of some biological plausibility for acupuncture and acupuncture channels, is that acupuncture should not be dismissed out of hand. A small, but significant claim, for which I feel I have put forward at least a suitable evidence-based starting place. And there is the possibility that future evidence may confirm biological benefits to the manipulation of bioelectrical DC fields – whether by acupuncture or by some other means.

  • Scotlyn

    Apologies – the link for the second reference, which seems to have gotten lost above, is Electrical Correlates of Acupuncture .

  • Seriously?

    Wow. Fantastic objectivity here. Way to cram the entirety of eastern thought into the framework of western thinking. Might as well explain football through the vocabulary of baseball. To understand eastern thought, you need to look at it on its own ground. For example, chi is just another way to account for matter and consciousness. How can something change yet stay the same? Heraclitus asked this long ago and no one has given him a square answer. Chi attempts to look at reality in the midst of change while also attempting to account for consciousness. In the west, the “explanatory gap” between qualia and materialism is wide open. Theories of chi attempt to address this.

    So, no, you will never discover a “chi particle.” They are two different models for looking at the same thing. Each model has its own strengths. If you want to build a computer, use the western one. If you want to understand what it means to be a living human being, the eastern one is infinitely more meaningful. Also, try pranayama if you have any doubts. See how in influences your awareness. From the western perspective, deep breathing oxygenates the blood and whatnot, but how can this be explained from the lived experience? How does your qualitative state change? How does it feel? Chi is called “psycho-physical energy”, which accounts for one’s lived experience. They are just two different ways to talk about the same thing.

    Articles like this evoke emotional responses in those who choose the western model. Why does it have to be so emotive and one sided? This strikes me as something like Bill O’Reilly yelling at a guest who has had his mic turned off. Those who side with Bill eat it up, but everyone else watching has witnessed an act of propaganda and not a “fair and balanced” discussion.

  • http://lenoxus.pbworks.com lenoxuss

    The thing about empiricism is that people make empirical statements with way more frequency than they believe they do.

    Saying that your alternative health system is to any degree effective against some disease — that is an empirical statement, which means it can and should be scientifically tested. There are no two ways about it.

    Human beings are very good at woobly talk, and then feeling good about their own woobly talk. This does not mean there is any usefulness to such talk — although, of course, a person is free to demonstrate the effectiveness of their woo at any time.

    But then, I’m sure that attempting to demonstrate it would mean you’ve already fallen victim to Western thinking, and it’s too late for you.

    From the western perspective, deep breathing oxygenates the blood and whatnot, but how can this be explained from the lived experience? How does your qualitative state change? How does it feel?

    Well, fair enough, there is the hard problem of consciousness. That’s an excellent point. But the thing about that problem is that, outside of science, no one’s managed to make noticeable progress on it; all that a non-scientific approach does is rephrase the problem. “How are physical entities able to experience things? Psycho-physical energy!”

    By contrast, neurology alone has made whopping strides, actually giving answers to specific questions about what’s going on when she feels curious, when he thinks about California, and when I meditate. It’s that “Western” thinking — which is really everyone’s thinking, because Indian and Chinese scientists use it too — that’s truly transcendental.

    Indeed, yes, that all still leaves a solid kernel of the core question, the bewildering and exhilarating enigma of sentience.

    That question.

    Well, what else would the spirits want but for us to try and answer?

  • eric

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/192882/Tai-Chi-QigongEnergy-Scientific-Experimentation

    I have a hard time believing it too, but I’m and biomed engineer and a kung fu practicioner. I know enough about physics and human physiology to say that there is an infinite amount of knowledge still to be gained from the intracies of the human body on cellular, molecular, sub-molecular, etc. basis. It would be arrogant to fully dismiss any knowledge gained by people of the past because it doesn’t fit our empirical data standard.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    If you know enough about physics, then you should know enough about how to actually test for these things and should know enough to know that the claims invariably are bunk. If you don’t know enough, then for shame.

  • Trudy

    In answer to your question at the closing of your blog, I think you might find the data and research you are looking for in Alice Bailey’s Esoteric Astrology, or at the very least some history. Personally, I find the connections found in all ancient teachings fascinating. Good luck and thank you for your blog.


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